Top Ten Tips for Going Back to Work

When I started writing Mommy Wars five years ago, I was desperate to connect with other moms battling the "inner mommy war" -- that incessant voice in my head questioning whether my choices about work and family were right for my kids, my husband, the universe ... and oh, yes, me. I got what I needed -- wisdom, self-deprecating humor, camaraderie and advice from other moms. Between the lines of the 26 essays in Mommy Wars, I also found outstanding, practical advice on how and when to leave the work force to stay home -- and how and when to go back.

I collected all the collective wisdom from the Mommy Wars contributors, moms I met on book tour, headhunters, human resources managers, and hundreds of comments from posters on this blog. Here it is, boiled down to my Top Ten Tips For Going Back to Work listed below -- and you can find more advice for moms heading back to work in a condensed version of my Today Show interview with Ann Curry, How Stay At Home Moms Can Go Back to Work.

Top Ten Tips for Going Back to Work

1) Get determined to go back. Women often leave work for good reasons -- to be with children, because they're frustrated by a less-than-family-friendly work schedule, to support husband's demanding career. So naturally SAHMS often feel conflicted about returning to work. Can I juggle work and motherhood? Will my kids suffer? Will my partner be supportive? Are my skills still valued by the workplace? You cannot project ambivalence to potential employers or waste valuable interview time justifying your choices. Women report this process can take up to a year.

2) Ask for help! Get a buddy or paid coach or take a class to help you develop a compelling resume and job interview skills. Writing a resume based on skills -- not chronological promotions and achievements -- can be hard. Projecting confidence in an interview is also a big challenge to someone who has been home for years. But, as in any job interview, confidence is key. A critical mistake is to sell yourself short. Tip: Working moms can be critical allies in helping SAHMs get back to work.

3) Invest in yourself before (and after) you leave the work force. The better your education and the more impressive your career achievements, the more options you will have when you return to work. Tip: instead of over-volunteering at school or helicopter parenting, take a class in your field or volunteer in your area of expertise.

4) Be realistic and determined; don't expect the job market to respect, validate or reward your decision to stay home with children.

5) Stay in the same city and in the same field. Returning to work is simpler if you remain in the same geographic area and the same area of expertise so you can leverage your prior contacts and professional reputation. Beware of moving too often for your spouse's career. Don't assume other fields are less competitive or more family-friendly without hard evidence. Changing careers and geographies often means starting over.

6) Go back full time: Unfortunately, part-time jobs remain elusive for anyone at any stage in their careers. Instead of holding out for the perfect part-time job, look for a full-time job with a family-friendly employer who gives employees flexibility on a daily basis.

7) Keep up your network! This jaded advice holds true -- but it doesn't mean an awkward call to your old HR manager every January. Keep up with your FRIENDS from work and your industry. Maintain professional connections in ways that feel comfortable to you.

8) Stay (somewhat) current on major new technology trends in your field. Lawyers need to read up on Sarbanes-Oxley. Marketers need to keep tabs on Internet marketing. Certified professionals keep your accreditations current. Go to an industry conference or meeting to brush up on lingo and savvy.

9) Go back within 10 years. Headhunters and human resource managers say a three- to five-year absence is now relatively easy to explain. Ten-plus years is a lot harder. Also, age-related bias (hardly on our radars in our 30s or 40s) becomes real for men and women as we move into 50 and beyond.

And here's my favorite advice, from On Balance reader Jenn:

10) "Never give up, never surrender. :)"

Which of these resonate most with you? What are your tips?

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  March 10, 2008; 7:15 AM ET  | Category:  Top Ten Tips
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

My wife is a sahm now, but went back to work after no. 1. The best piece of advice I could give from her experience is buy some new clothes. It changes your whole perspective on your new body image and makes you feel good about yourself at a time when you are feeling depressed about going back to work.


Posted by: happydad | March 10, 2008 6:36 AM

HappyDad - Very good advice, actually. Sometimes I overlook the simplest, best advice. But it's true: new clothes, new makeup, new haircut, can boost your confidence, and show that you are committed to returning to work. Thanks.

I am doing independent research on stay-at-home moms who return. There is a short (20 question) survey at Moms At Work. Here's the link.

Would love it if your wife and anyone else interested would take a few minutes to complete it!

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 7:41 AM

Try not to spend a lot of time analyzing your decision once you do go back. You will have an adjustment period and having doubts and feeling emotional about leaving your kids is normal for a few weeks. Same advice I give my friends when they go back to work 3 months after they have a baby.

And sometimes you have to fake confidence. People do it all the time who never left the workforce.

Working Mom to 3

Posted by: amy | March 10, 2008 7:49 AM

True -- a job interview is a job interview. you have to pysch yourself up for it, whether you are 22 or 42 or 52. fake it till you make it.

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 8:01 AM

Tread carefully on the "investing" part.
Taking on debt for another degree may not pay off.

If you are gray-haired consider a stylish haircut and/or color. You can go natural again once you are on the payroll.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 10, 2008 8:56 AM

RedBird -- Wise counsel. I see many women who want to trade careers when they return, seeking something "less competitive" and more family friendly than business or law or whatever. Many tend towards teaching or social work, both of which require additional degrees. And low and behold, these fields are equally demanding, especially where you have to start out, at the bottom of the food chain.

So I think it is important to "invest" wisely in yourself. Perhaps a course or two to signal your interest and to brush up your skills. Attendance at a few relevant conferences.

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 9:06 AM

Leslie hits on this in her post, but you absolutely need to have the full support of your partner. Your partner needs to support and recognize that BOTH parties are going to need to adjust their days to support a second working parent. All too often I think women go back to work, presumably with the full support of their hubbies, but continue to provide the same level of child and house care. For example, let's say as a SAHM, one was responsible for getting the kids ready to go to school in the mornings, helping out homework, doing laundry, buying groceries, making dinner, putting kids to bed. If SAHM goes back to work, but is still expected to be the primary person in charge of all the above child and household duties, I think she is just going to get overstressed and question her decision.

I'd think one of the hardest things about going back to work is to break up the family routine and re-allocate household responsibility.

Posted by: londonmom | March 10, 2008 9:07 AM

LondonMom -

I think if you could write a book about how to reallocate chores (and get DH to sign on) you'd have an instant best-seller. How did you do it? I see many "supportive" husbands who still seem to think superwifey can do it all. And I'm not being snarky here (okay, a bit) because I don't think these mens are jerks. They just don't think through all the logistics very well. How can we change this?

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 9:15 AM

I'm getting ready to go back to work as well. I've been at home for almost 10 years now. The youngest is starting kinder this fall. The family, kids are on solid ground so I am ready! I'm looking for part time work, maybe 25 - 30 hrs/week. I need to make sure my household is not going to fall apart before taken on full time employment. I am pretty sure housework and school stuff( husband travel a lot) are going to be my responsibility so I don't want full time work right now. Although I have some leads, we're given me the next 9-12 months to make something happen.

Posted by: lourd | March 10, 2008 9:34 AM

Lourd -- keep us posted on how the job hunt goes. My experience is that finding a good part time job is hard. There just aren't enough of them to go around. It might be better to look for a fulltime job with a family-friendly, flexible employer who lets you work PT for the first several weeks until your family adjusts.

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 10:01 AM

"I see many "supportive" husbands who still seem to think superwifey can do it all."

This is what is happening with my brother/SIL right now. She is back at work after a 6 year hiatus and they are grappling with the change in the family dynamics. While in theory, my brother is super-supportive of my SIL's decision to go back to work. In practice, though, it has been tough to change "business as usual". My brother had the luxury of coming home to a clean house and home-cooked meal every night and now that SIL is back at work, that isn't happening. More than anything, I just think it will take time for the entire family to adjust.

I've never really had that problem with DH b/c I've never stopped working (two 4 month maternity leaves excluded). From day one it was an equal (well...maybe 60-40) split. I do mornings and DH does evenings (though I try very hard to be home by 7:30 dinner every night).

Posted by: londonmom | March 10, 2008 10:11 AM

My children are in their late 20s now. I and my friends struggled mightily with this. We now can look at all the children as adults and see if working really harmed them etc. By and large it didn't. The children that had happy & healthy parents that treated each other respectfully & treated their children respectfully are doing just fine. The children from families dealing with depression, anger issues, or verbal abuse aren't doing as well as adults. So my advice is worry less about the impacts of working on your children & more about the atmosphere in your home.

Posted by: postreader118 | March 10, 2008 10:34 AM

"My brother had the luxury of coming home to a clean house and home-cooked meal every night..."

Luxury? A clean house and an animal in the cooker is the least that can be expected after a hard day's work. Toss in a happy wife, happy kids, master's chair void of Walmart bag and a cold beer, and that would be more like luxury!

Posted by: GutlessCoward | March 10, 2008 12:23 PM

I am glad to hear Gutless Coward's comments. I will have to tell my husband that I should be coming home to a clean house and hot meal every day since I provide the income that keeps our household going - its not a luxury but his duty to provide it to me as the only breadwinner. After doing a budget to ensure we don't get further in debt, I discovered my husband contributes 18$ to our household after you deduct the expenses the other household incurs. *sigh* I had hoped it wasn't that bad but it is.

The good news for my husband is that I don't expect him to do that for me. He has picked up more of the work around the house recently which has definitely helped my own frame of mind. We still seem to be continually slipping behind on our household duties and we still hardly see each other but we are managing to get by.

Posted by: Billie_R | March 10, 2008 1:11 PM

"How did you do it? I see many "supportive" husbands who still seem to think superwifey can do it all."

Well, start by asking for what you want, vs. just expecting him to see/notice the disparity, and then stick with it.

My husband's a great guy, really carries his weight. But after we moved back east and I started working full-time in an office instead of part-time telecommuting from home, I started feeling overburdened. It wasn't that he was blowing things off; we had a lot of the "big" stuff divvied up, like he does dropoff and I do pickup, I cook and he does dishes, etc. It was that we had set a pattern where I did more of the little stuff because I was home more. So he had gotten used to me throwing in a load of laundry when I had a 5-minute break, getting the grocery shopping done in the afternoon after my east-coast office had closed, etc.

By the time we added a new baby, I was feeling overwhelmed. After a few snips and smart-ass comments, I finally figured out that I needed to approach him more directly, rather than just continue to be PO'd that he didn't notice all the little stuff that fell to me. So I just went to him and said, ok, which kid do you want? He said, "no, thanks, I like things the way they are." I said, "Ha ha, that's really funny. Now, which kid do you want?" So now we each take primary responsibility for one kid's laundry, doctor's appts, etc. Of course we switch things around all the time (if I can do both kids at the doctor's at once, I'm there). But at least now he doesn't get pissy because there's a pile of kid laundry that needs to be put away -- because it's just as often his responsibility as mine. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | March 10, 2008 1:30 PM

Laura -- Excellent oft-overlooked advice: Tell him what you want and need. Repeat (nicely) or post a list in the kitchen.

I, like many wives, think it is SO OBVIOUS what we need (and sometimes it is -- like, feed our child dinner, she's hungry!). But before you get fumed, give it a try -- ask him outright to do what you want.

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 1:46 PM

I was so pleased to see your entry today about going back to work after being a stay at home mom. I worked full time for 5 years with one child, then stayed home for 3 years with two more children. With three kids under the age of 6, there were honestly days that I didn't think there was any way we could all get out of the house in one piece. Well, I'm pleased to say that 6 months ago, today, I went back to work, full time and then some! I've found that after the first couple of months especially of just getting the kids in a routine, I'm in some ways much more productive around our home and enjoying every minute of time with our kids. I think your top ten list was 'right on.' I especially agree with taking a position in the same field, and finding a full time employer that offers flexibility. I also think it's important to invest in the new wardrobe that is necessary to create the transformation, and to have a spouse that is 110% on board and ready to take over those first few months. I feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to both work like crazy and to stay home and be crazy somedays, too. Women are unique in the sense that we are always wanting what we don't have at the moment. I'm pleased now that if I ever contemplated leaving the workforce again down the road that I've experienced the joys and challenges ahead. Staying home was a huge adjustment too! Stay at home moms and working moms: Getting out the door is the hardest part, no matter what your role is.

Posted by: mdrong | March 10, 2008 1:59 PM

Since your household income will be increasing at this time, take the opportunity to redo your family budget -- including "paying yourself first" (i.e., deciding how much to set aside each pay-period for your savings program).

If you have household debt beyond a home mortgage (as well as, say, car payments), calculate how much of the new income you can dedicate to paying off what you presently owe, because reducing interest payments is like increased income!

Posted by: mehitabel | March 10, 2008 2:00 PM

Lourd -

Never be afraid to ask about part-time hours. I've found that if an employer wants to hire you, they will go the extra distance. Twice (I go between SAHM and WOHM like a ping-pong ball), I've gotten a 30 hour workweek although the position was originally 40 hours. The first time, the HR person had to tell me, "Why don't I ask if you can work 30 hours a week instead of 40?" when she called with a verbal job offer. The second time, I asked about flexible work hours in the interview. I then managed to negotiate a 30 hour workweek during subsequent interviews.

Posted by: bridgmanyang | March 10, 2008 2:02 PM

The other thing that I think is important is to be flexible about certain standards, if you can be. With a stay-at-home spouse, it can be possible to always come home to a clean house and a home-cooked dinner every night, but if both spouses are working, you might have to agree to pizza once a week, leftovers on another night, soup and saldad on a third night, etc. and maybe folding laundry while you relax in the evenings. Also, if your kids are old enough, teach them to clean up after themselves and to do laundry. My 8 year old can do laundry and fold his own clothes. He knows how to run the vacuum cleaner, how to dust the furniture, and how to clean the kitchen counters. Every evening before we go to bed, we have a 15 minute tidy up event that we all participate in (except the newborn). One person washes dishes, the other 2 people do a quick tidy up of the living areas. It just makes life so much easier to have everyone pitch in. Our house is not immaculate, and it sometimes can get a bit messy, but at least we try to all pitch in and help each other, so that no one person feels taken advantage of.

Posted by: emily111 | March 10, 2008 2:07 PM

My last post got lost in ciberspace. Has this happened to anyone else?

Posted by: lourd | March 10, 2008 2:20 PM

Many posts have gotten eaten today. Sorry, everyone! Probably due to daylight savings change.

Make sure you are signed in and your User ID is displayed above the Comments box before posting.

Thanks for your patience.

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 4:05 PM

I'm trying to stretch my brain around the topic and the comments today.

I can't imagine DH going back to work after 16 years as SAHP. Well, he'd probably have no choice if a bus runs me down on the way home from work. Otherwise, it's just not going to happen.

And I have no advice to offer for women trying to return to paid employment, since I never left mine. Eight weeks of leave for older son, because of C-section. Six weeks for younger son. And I was happy to get back to stable, predictable daily and weekly routines. I had a great employer (still do - family-friendly = long-term, loyal employees) and a lot of support, and rented a huge pump that looked like an oil rig when it was running!

My path wouldn't make most new moms happy. I certainly wouldn't suggest that anyone else try it unless they thought of it on their own and thought it was a great idea.

And I'd recommend having an escape plan if the reality turns out not to be as good as the idea seemed. The worst period of my entire life was the three months I spent consulting out-of-state. Younger son was weaned at 21 months because I was only with him (and the rest of the family) every other week end. Having *my* level of interaction and involvement was wonderful, but not having enough was lonely and miserable.

Posted by: sue | March 10, 2008 4:22 PM

Sue -- Good advice about the escape hatch. Good for both parents, no matter how the income is distributed. Sometimes you MUST have the flexibility to be there for your kids, no matter what your job demands.

Also think you deserve a medal for pumping for 21 months.

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 5:09 PM

"So my advice is worry less about the impacts of working on your children & more about the atmosphere in your home."

Great advice, postreader.

Posted by: LizaBean | March 10, 2008 5:13 PM

Thanks, Leslie, but I have to give that medal back. I didn't earn it.

I pumped for 5-6 months with each kid. They still nursed in the mornings and evenings, but started getting formula during the day when they started getting solid foods introduced. It was easier for DH to mix up their cereals with formula than to have to start by thawing out mommy-milk from the freezer.

And I'm aware and sympathetic to women who struggle with nursing and pumps - my sister had bleeding nipples for about a month! But I seemed to get all the wet-nurse genes in the family, and feeding my babies was the simplest and easiest part of motherhood. Both my newborns had gained weight before we even went home from the hospital.

Posted by: sue | March 10, 2008 5:40 PM

I have no idea how the working mom's do it! I am not a mom yet, and I just can't keep up with these 40 hours a week and 2 hours a day commute schedule. I find that I lose out on keeping a healthy diet (for both myself and the hubby), exercise, and hobbies for me.

I am now cutting back to 20 hours while I finish up grad school, but actually would like to get out of the full-time routine in general and to prepare for being a mom. Instead, I am looking for creative alternatives to coming to a desk job each day. There are so many alternatives out there. But actually it wasn't that hard landing a part time job where I already work full time, thank God.

Posted by: HadhratKhadija | March 10, 2008 5:57 PM

Actually a very good idea to go PT even before you have kids, to get used to the schedule and reduced income. The only downside is that some employers have an annual hours worked threshold for providing paid maternity leave. Check it out before you get pregnant! Because then your choices become a lot more limited. Good luck!

Posted by: leslie4 | March 10, 2008 6:14 PM

get a ton of underwear and tee shirts for all and extra sports uniform to avoid panic in the a.m. you should be able to go a week without laundry if it comes to it, and it will. get a crockpot and use it - get delivered groceries and fill a spare freezer with dinners, yours or premade. have three emergency contacts aside from spouse and have a backup summer care plan in case yours falls thru (kid breaks ankle and can't go to baseball camp, etc.) do not set any goals like home decor that can't be put off. go into mission mode getting everyone on track with mom away a lot. this isn't the time to bring in a puppy or run the church fund-raiser. make a chart a la supernanny of chores and responsibilities - trash out, floodlites on at nite, no clean clothes left in dryer or dishes in sink.
in other words, make it easy as possible to transition. (splurge on overnite camp esp. if you are new at work in the summer. new in the summer is a bad idea in general but perhaps unavoidable with the offers you get.)

Posted by: OrlandoNan | March 12, 2008 4:23 AM

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